Librarian's Picks: Saving the Best for First Sometimes authors' best works are their first. The tale of an imaginary universe where elevators are really important and the story of the first giraffe in Europe are among librarian Nancy Pearl's selections of must-read literary debuts.
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Librarian's Picks: Saving the Best for First

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Librarian's Picks: Saving the Best for First

Librarian's Picks: Saving the Best for First

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Our favorite reader is back again. This time, librarian Nancy Pearl has recommended a hefty stack of first books, meaning an author's debut effort--not necessarily new books, we should mention, but great first books that she has noticed over time. Nancy, good to talk to you again.

Ms. NANCY PEARL (Author; Freelance Writer; Television Host; Former Director, Washington Center for the Book, Seattle Public Library): Thank you Steve. It's great to be here.

INSKEEP: I want to begin with this first book here on the top of the stack. It's called Zarafa. Am I saying that properly?

Ms. PEARL: Zarafa, yes.

INSKEEP: And it's the story of a Trojan giraffe.

Ms. PEARL: (Laughs) Yes it is indeed. It's the story of the first giraffe who ever was seen in Europe in the early 1800s.

INSKEEP: And a Trojan giraffe because...?

Ms. PEARL: Zarafa was sent to Europe in an attempt to dissuade France from coming in on the side of a war...

INSKEEP: It was a diplomatic distraction.

Ms. PEARL: Yes. It's a wonderful book because what it does is take this little-known fact of history which was the introduction of the first giraffe from Africa into Europe, and her effect on the times she lived in. But he, Michael Allin, the author, does so much more than that and what I loved about the book best, I think, is the pictures that it gives of all the people who came into contact with her.

And my favorite I believe in that book is Napoleon because we think of Napoleon as being a kind of ruthless conqueror. But I mean, this was a guy who was very interested in the world around him, in natural philosophy, in literature--and when he went into Egypt in the 1790s and he brought with him--I just love this--54,000 thousand fighting men, 154 savants and 287 books...

INSKEEP: (Laughs)

Ms. PEARL: And as he rode into battle he would be reading a book and he would tear out a page and pass it to the soldiers behind him. So, he had like the best read army.

INSKEEP: So that is the story of a giraffe that affected the world. And as I go through this stack of books, let's talk next about an author who altered the world into a parallel universe, Colson Whitehead. His first novel was called The Intuitionist.

Ms. PEARL: I just, I reread it because I wanted us to talk about it. And what Colson Whitehead has done so wonderfully in this book is imagine a universe that has a lot of similarities to ours but is very, very different. And perhaps the big difference between our universe and Whitehead's invented universe, is that in Whitehead's universe, elevators are really important.

And the main character is a woman named Lila Mae Watson who is the first black female elevator inspector. And Lila Mae Watson gets in the middle of a search for, really the missing Bible of elevator inspection.

The thing that Whitehead does, when he describes this world, is that he's taken everything into account. So, Lila Mae Watson doesn't go to an engineering school like Caltech or whatever, she goes to the Institute for Vertical Transport where they study such things as the psychology of the call button. And what I love--and I think this would be a great dinner party conversation--would be the dilemma of the vanishing passenger.

So, here's the setup. What if you press the call button for the elevator to come to you, but then you decide either, to take the stairs, or to take another elevator that's come before. Will the elevator open for you? That is the dilemma of the vanishing passenger.

INSKEEP: (Laughs) If an elevator door opens and nobody's there to see it...

Ms. PEARL: (Laughs) Right.

INSKEEP: Well, let's leave that cliffhanging question, or perhaps we should say elevator-shaft-dangling question in the air, and move onto the next book which is called Spilling Clarence.

Ms. PEARL: Spilling Clarence, by Anne Ursu is one of those very special novels that really deserve a much wider audience. And it's the story of a small town and what happens is that a drug, a chemical, gets into the water system--and that chemical causes everybody to remember everything about their lives. And for some people it's really a blessing.

One of the main characters, he doesn't, he now remembers things about his wife who died very young that he's never, that he's forgotten in the intervening years. But for many people, it is just unbelievably horrible. And I think that what Anne Ursu does in this book, very light handedly, is make us think about memories and how we're defined by our memories in a way--how we self-define by the memories that we choose to keep or repress, and how painful it would be if we didn't have the buffer of time between us and our memories.

INSKEEP: Here's another book on the stack here. Whores on the Hill, by Colleen Curran.

Ms. PEARL: (Laughs) Whores on the Hill, yeah. This is a fabulous novel about teenagers. And it's about three reckless teenage girls who don't mind being referred to at all as the whores on the hill by the other people in their Milwaukee private school.

And they really, I think, court trouble. I mean, I think they're out to find trouble and they do find it. And I think that what this book does is remind us of both the scariness and the dreaminess of being an adolescent. And I think Colleen Curran--there's a wonderful, wonderful line in here where the main character says At home, even in bed with the covers pulled tight, it still felt like we were flying, Astrid, Juli and me, burning through our bare, balding town like a breath of wet fire. Our desire. We wanted the world. All of it, and now.

INSKEEP: Okay, nearly all the writers in our stack have come out with a second book.

Ms. PEARL: Yes.

INSKEEP: Is there a second book by one of these authors that you liked better than the first one though?

Ms. PEARL: No, there is not. Generally speaking I think there is something about these books, and maybe it's because in a way they're a little skewed in their subject matter and I kind of like that sort of novel, but I think a writer pours his or her heart and soul into the writing their first book. Not that they don't do that for subsequent books, but I think in some cases maybe the best has come out there.

INSKEEP: Nancy Pearl is the author of Book Lust and a second book called More Book Lust. Nancy, thanks very much.

Ms. PEARL: Thanks Steve.

INSKEEP: And for more of Nancy's first-book picks and excerpts, go to

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